Dad Says He Will Be Fine

By Kirsten Clodfelter

The pain is in Dad’s right side. I guess it gets so bad that it wakes him up in the middle of the night, because I scare him when he turns the corner from the dark hallway into the kitchen. I’ve pulled up a chair against the oven door and am using the dim light above the stove to study. When Dad rounds the corner and flips on the overhead, he jumps back and yells the f-word before he realizes it’s just me. I try really hard not to laugh, but then I give in because Dad’s laughing too, even with his eyes wide like that.

“What are you doing?” He’s still catching his breath – I think I scared him pretty bad, and he leans against the pantry with his shoulder.

“Math test tomorrow.” I point to the book that’s laying open across the front burner.

“No, I mean why the hell are you sitting like that?” He looks pale.

“I’m using the light.”

“How can you even see? Why don’t you just turn on the real light and sit at the table? You’re ruining your eyes.”

But with the fluorescent light on, the room looks bigger, and late at night all of that bright space in the rest of the dark, quiet house feels so empty that it makes me sad. When it’s not lit up as much, I can forget about the kitchen except for my own small corner, so it doesn’t seem as lonely. Plus the house is just emptier without Mom. It’s weird how one person can make that much of a difference, but even now it still feels like Dad and I live in a giant castle, or like we’ve shrunk down to the size of ceramic figurines. I’m not really sure how to explain it all to Dad, so I say, “It’s weird to have all the lights on when it’s so late.”

“No, that’s when you’re supposed to have the lights on because it’s dark. You’re going to go blind before you even get to college. You don’t want to have to learn braille, you’ve already spent two years studying Spanish.”

“I could study brail in Spanish. Then I’d be multilingual.”

“Oh, you’re brilliant.” He rubs his eyes. “Think you can save destroying your sight until tomorrow? I need you to drive me to the hospital.”

I turn around all the way in my chair and stare at him, but he just stands there leaning into the wall for a minute and says nothing. Then he gets a glass of water and holds on to the refrigerator door, crunching ice cubes with his teeth. I blink a lot, trying to keep things in focus.

Dad is going to be okay – the pain isn’t too bad, he says. He’s lying a little, I think; I can tell by the way he grits his teeth when he talks, but he’s sure it’s nothing serious. It’s happened before. He assures me of this twice on the ride over.

I only have my permit, but I do a much better job driving tonight than when Dad usually takes me out to practice. It’s sort of cheating because there are almost no other cars on the road, but it’s also a lot easier without Dad saying something about the speed limit or a turn signal or a curb every two seconds. On the way over, I run a yellow light and Dad doesn’t say anything about it. Not a word. I glance over at him as I coast through the empty intersection, but his head is turned away from me, watching through the glass for something in the dark.

When we pull into the parking lot, I ask, “Kiss and Ride?”

It takes him a minute to answer, but when he does he says, “You can’t drive by yourself.”

“Oh my god, Dad, it’s just across a parking lot.”

“It’s fine. I don’t want you walking around at night by yourself anyway.”

I want to tell him that it’s pretty ridiculous to think that the parking lot of the ER is dangerous, since it’s so lit up it practically looks like the middle of the afternoon, but I really have to concentrate to pull in between the two white lines without bumping the cars on either side. The real trouble will be reversing back out when we leave, but I try not to think about it.

It takes Dad awhile to get out of the car. He’s not a big guy or anything – I mean he’s not fat, but he pants the whole time. I wait by the driver side door. I hold the metal ring of the car keys between my teeth so I can use both hands to pull my hair back into a ponytail. I squinch up my nose at the bitter, metallic taste it leaves on my tongue.

Dad holds onto the frame of the door and turns. Laughing, he asks, “What the hell is that face?”

“My mouth tastes like keys.” The wind blows through my cotton t-shirt and raises goosebumps on my arms and neck. I’m wearing a shirt I usually wear to bed, because it says Middlebrook High across the chest in white letters. It’s kind of lame to advertise where you go to school in public.

It takes us almost ten minutes to get to the entrance, since Dad’s moving so slow, and his hand shakes when he takes the pen to sign himself in. Neither of us like hospitals very much, they make us nervous. Behind my back, I tighten my hands into fists to keep mine from shaking too.

The receptionist who checks him in is wearing pigtails. Her brown hair is threaded with strands of silver. Dad says even I’m too old for pigtails, so I know what he’s thinking as soon as we see her. While Dad writes down his name, I lean over the desk on my elbows. I try to keep a straight face when I tell her, “I really like your hair.” Then I watch Dad in my periphery. He smiles with one corner of his mouth, in a way that doesn’t let Linda, that’s her name, know we’re sort of making fun of her.

For an emergency room, nothing’s moving very fast. We’re in the waiting room for twenty minutes, then forty-five. Dad’s forehead is dotted with little beads of sweat and his cheeks are red, like he’s just come in from a run. I try to distract him the way he does for me when I have the stomach flu, when the twisting pain gets unbearable right before I throw-up. He has good stories to tell – funny things from when he and my uncles were kids or some cute memory of Mom. I tell him what I have to do in school tomorrow, but of course it’s totally boring, because it’s school. “Try to imagine sitting through the whole entire hour and ten minutes of English,” I tell him. “Look at how miserable it is to talk about The Canterbury Tales for just five minutes.”

He sneaks in a quick “yeah” between grunting and holding his side. I look at the clock again. Each time I do, it’s the same time as the last time I looked. At 1:55, I keep my eyes on the white face and watch the second hand go all the way around, and then the minute hand click forward, to make sure that time is really passing.

When Linda the receptionist finally calls Dad’s name, at one hour and twenty-three minutes, he hands me his jacket. “Wear this,” he says. “It’s cold by the door.” I look up at him as I fold the windbreaker over my arm. I make an encouraging face, showing my teeth when I smile, like Dad says to do when my picture is being taken. “Girls are always prettier when they smile with teeth,” is what he usually says, and then, “not that you could be any prettier. Lucky for both of us you look like your mom.” I don’t let it show, but I’m relieved to stay. I don’t want to go back there with him, with the IV tubes and the no-nonsense nurses and the complicated machines.

“Later Gator,” I say.

He nods, half-turned toward the desk, and he pushes the words out of his mouth like they’re sticky. “After awhile.”

He’s had the pain for a few days. “It’s nothing to worry about,” he told me yesterday, while we were making grilled cheese for dinner, but the hollow space beneath his eyes is getting darker. The thing is, he would say it was nothing to worry about even if it was. I’ve never seen him go to the doctor, and that includes the time he broke his pinky finger playing horseshoes with Frank, our sort of redneck neighbor. It’s something Mom used to get kind of mad about – she was a worrier, Dad says – but I know that she’s part of the reason he doesn’t like it. It’s only been two years since we had to spend days and days and days at the hospital visiting her, before they told us what we had known already, that they couldn’t do anything else, and they finally sent her home to where she should have been all along – with us.

It’s boring in the waiting room. There aren’t too many people. The man closest to me is curled up in his seat, his knees against his chest, his head bowed. He could be praying, but every few minutes he snores a little. Each time the double emergency doors beside the front desk swing open, I snap my head up, thinking that they’ll call my name to bring me back to where Dad is, but it’s always just a nurse rushing to some other part of the hospital. It takes a long time. I pick up a Glamour that’s displayed neatly in a stack of magazines on a little table at the end of a row of chairs. I flip through it and look at the ads. It’s hard to concentrate on anything else, like The 5 Trendiest Spring Hairstyles, especially because I mostly wear my hair in a ponytail all the time anyway. At some point I think I doze off trying to remember quadratic equations. Dad told me to bring my math book so I could finish studying, but it’s in the car and I don’t feel like going to get it.

When it gets close to four AM, I look over at the desk and wonder if I should ask to go back and wait with Dad, but I’m not sure if that’s allowed. Linda looks busy anyway, entering forms from manila file folders into her computer, so I lean back in the chair and hide my hands in the pockets of Dad’s jacket. It’s spread across my knees like a blanket. I find a ticket stub to the Nationals’ game that Dad and I went to last month and a single dollar bill. The dollar is folded exactly in half. Perfectly creased. I get up to stretch my legs and walk to the vending machine. I put the jacket on, the long sleeves hiding my hands, like a scarecrow. The bottoms of my feet tingle hot with pins and needles and it feels strange to stand after sitting for so long. My jeans are stuck to the back of my knees, and the nylon of the windbreaker makes a whooshing noise when I move my arms.

I buy salt and pepper potato chips for seventy-five cents, and I leave the extra quarter in the return change cup. I always do that, in case someone doesn’t have enough money when they get to the machine. I found ten cents like that once when all I wanted in the whole world was one can of Sprite, and I’ve been doing it ever since, leaving change.

On my way back, I pass a woman who’s leaning so far forward in her plastic chair that she’s almost kissing her own lap. I think about this thing Jared said at the lunch table last week, about this chick in a porno he found in his sister’s room. I told him it had to be special effects, but looking at this woman now, maybe I was wrong about that. I’ll have to tell him tomorrow at school.

The woman’s blonde hair is pinned up with a clip in a neat coil in the back of her head. She’s wearing businessey clothes and high heels, but her white blouse is untucked. She won’t stop moving her hands. She twists them together and then pulls them apart and then cracks the knuckles, but there’s no sound because she already did the same thing a few seconds earlier. She lifts her eyes toward me as I pass, but I don’t make eye contact.

I think again about going to the receptionist’s desk, to ask if she’ll let me go back and sit with Dad, to keep him company in case he’s bored too. He’s been back there for a long time by himself. The worst she can do is say no, it’s just asking. But then I think that maybe Dad doesn’t want me bothering him, doesn’t want me to see him lying down in one of those remote-control beds, in a flimsy gown with a needle taped to his arm, or maybe he’s even sleeping, finally, so I sit back down.

I spread Dad’s jacket back over my lap. I try to avoid looking at the woman with the serious hair, but she keeps shifting in her seat and I catch her every few seconds in my line of vision. I look down at the tiles of the floor instead. They alternate in color – light blue and dark blue. The dark blue tiles form a pattern on the diagonal, an unbroken line from one corner of the room to the other. The line goes nowhere. I think about the algebra test I have tomorrow and start to feel guilty that I left the book in the car. The motor in the water fountain clicks on and off in intervals of three minutes. I timed it. When the humming stops, the entire machine shudders, and the screech of halting gears makes me jump every time. It sounds like it’s breaking, and when it clicks on again, I’m surprised. The receptionist punches the keyboard harder than she needs to, and the clicking is too loud. She’s wearing two different colored hair scrunchies in the pigtails, one pink and one orange. It makes her hair look even more ridiculous. I make a mental note to point it out to Dad before we leave, because I know he’ll think it’s funny too. The blue-carpeted mat at the entrance of the emergency room needs to be swept. There are dried leaves along one edge that have been tracked in from outside. They’re clumped together, probably blown in through the open door.

I take a deep, shaky breath and decide to wait ten more minutes. Then I’ll go see Linda at the desk, and ask to go back to the little room where Dad is. That’s it. I’ve decided. I lean back in my chair. A rerun of Late Night with Jay Leno is playing on a television set that I can’t see – but I can hear the female guest, whoever she is, laugh through her entire interview. I look over and see that the woman has disappeared from her chair. Then the doctor calls my name. I stand and Dad’s jacket slides off my lap and onto the floor. The doctor speaks in a low voice, his tone even and clipped so that it’s hard for me to focus on what he says.

I hear “Complication,” and then there’s buzzing where more words should be, and then “sudden heart failure,” and then he asks a question, which I miss, and then there’s something about how I should call someone. I want to tell him that there’s no one to call, ask him what to do, and I work my jaw to get the words going, but nothing comes. He puts his hand on my shoulder when he says “I’m sorry,” and I want to jerk away but instead I stand as still as I can until the weight of his hand is gone.

After a few minutes he tells me he’ll send for the chaplain, and then he leaves. I sit back down in the plastic chair and trace the dark blue tiles from the right corner to the left corner of the room with my eyes. I look at Linda’s desk. She’s not there. She’s in the bathroom maybe, or talking with a nurse, or getting more manila folders. A bronze plaque near her station reads: Celebrating 20 Years of Excellent Emergency Care Service. I tell myself that I will not cry, that everything will be fine. I look down the long hallway that connects this wing with the rest of the hospital, but there’s no one there. The automatic doors that lead from the parking lot into the ER slide open, and a young Hispanic woman rushes in carrying a screaming toddler. Dad was right, it is cold. Goosebumps prick along the skin of my arms, and the soft blonde hairs rise, so that I can feel each one. Above the door, a lit sign says EXIT in red letters. It burns brightly.


Kirsten Clodfelter is the Associate Editor of Pif Magazine and an MFA fiction candidate at George Mason University. Her work can be read in Perigee, Word Riot, Dark Sky Magazine and Bayou Magazine, and is forthcoming in Fogged Clarity and The Iowa Review. She was a finalist for Cutthroat Magazine’s 2008 Rick DeMarinis Short Story Award and The Tampa Review’s 2009 Danahy Fiction Prize. She currently lives in Virginia.

One Response to “Dad Says He Will Be Fine”

  1. lapia says:

    Very nice story. I loved the pace. The inner musings of a lonely teenager are spot on. Great job.